EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Deandre Ayton, Suns’ defense grinds away Clippers to take 3-1 series lead

Jun 27, 2021, 12:11 AM | Updated: 8:26 pm

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after a blocked shot against the LA Clippers during th...

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after a blocked shot against the LA Clippers during the second half in game four of the Western Conference Finals at Staples Center on June 26, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — The Phoenix Suns have never looked out of place this postseason. The moment has never gotten too big for them, despite nearly half the rotation making its playoff debut.

But for a team full of composure and resiliency to this point, Monty Williams’ squad on Saturday night was missing some of the poise he has preached all season long.

Luckily for them, that was the case for their opposition in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals too, the Los Angeles Clippers.

In a second half when things rapidly unraveled for the Suns after a 16-point lead, they kept tripping over themselves offensively in the fourth quarter.

And the Clippers, instead of stepping on their throats, decided to join in on the fun by failing to produce offense.

During that the Suns were, as Williams would put it, imposing their will defensively. On second thought, that’s where the poise showed more than ever.

That mattered the most in the middle of a bizarre and bonkers fourth quarter that eventually ended in an 84-80 Suns win, a victory that both felt like one they needed to have and a miracle at the same time.

The reason for the former was because a loss would have meant absolutely wasting a sensational Deandre Ayton performance.

Ayton had 19 points, 22 rebounds, three assists, a steal and four blocks. He was that type of defensive force you envision him potentially becoming in a few year’s time that could see some hardware coming his way to reward it.

“He was all over the place tonight,” Williams said. “That’s the kind of player that he can be. He basically won the game for us. He was tremendous.”

The top outing of Ayton’s career could not have been better timed, because for the second straight game, the capes of Devin Booker and Chris Paul were nowhere to be found.

Paul shot 6-of-22 from the field for 18 points, four rebounds, seven assists, one steal and four turnovers while Booker was 8-for-22 with 25 points, two rebounds, zero assists, two steals and five turnovers.

Booker fouled out and still couldn’t find a precise way to attack the Clippers’ defense. He had some success going in a straight line with pace, but that’s also how he picked up his sixth foul. A technical foul he picked up in the early fourth quarter and his general run of play outside of the flow of the offense in the second half were the actions of a player who had lost his way a bit.

The Suns led by 14 at halftime and it should have been by 20-plus. Los Angeles shot 29.5% from the floor, and the duo of Paul George and Reggie Jackson that it is so reliant on offensively were both 3-of-11.

In that half was also not Booker or Paul quite finding the rhythm we’re accustomed to, so through some logical thinking, the belief was at least one of them would locate it.

But they didn’t.

Booker was 1-of-6 in the third quarter and Paul 3-for-9. Booker especially spent the last three minutes of the third quarter dominating the ball to try and get it going. He couldn’t, and he felt the need to because the Clippers were 11-of-20 (55.0%) on their own.

Because of Phoenix’s cushion, it was still up three going into the final quarter, but surely it would require the Suns to hit a certain level of offensive execution to win the game.

That, though, is where the Clippers defied all odds. When George missed a free throw with 10:07 left and the Suns up 71-70, both teams combined for 15 straight missed shots and five turnovers.

It was a signal from the basketball gods that we were entering the Looney Tunes dimension, but if you weren’t paying attention, you didn’t catch some phenomenal Suns defense in there.

“We competed at the highest level that I’ve seen from us all season long, especially on the defensive end,” Williams said of that fourth quarter the Suns hung on for dear life in.

Every Clippers miss, in particular, felt like a giant chance lost to seize control of the game.

Per ESPN Stats and Info, the Clippers were 0-for-12 on shots that could’ve either tied the game or saw them take the lead.

Things got weirder from there.

Booker and Jackson traded pull-up jumpers before Paul finally got a midrange jumper to go with 3:43 left that put Phoenix back up three.

After four missed shots between the two teams, Booker got to the foul line and hit two free throws to make it 79-74 Suns at 2:16 remaining.

The Clippers failed to convert next time down and then Booker traveled. For Los Angeles’ next crack at it, Suns forward Jae Crowder made one of the biggest plays of the game when he stripped Los Angeles’ Terance Mann when Mann appeared to have an open layup.

That’s where Booker drove in and initially drew a blocking foul before it was reversed for his sixth to disqualify him with 1:05 on the clock.

With over 11 minutes gone in the fourth quarter, it was Suns 10, Clippers eight.

Mann got a quick bucket after, and on the Suns’ next possession up three, Paul missed a middy that frustrated him, but who else than Ayton was there to grab the miss.

While Paul also didn’t hit the next jumper, that rebound extended the game a valuable 13 seconds all the way to 17.7 seconds left.

Williams, armed with the NBA’s best free-throw shooter this season in Paul, decided that was enough time to start fouling up three.

So, George was fouled and made both at the stripe.

After Williams took his last timeout with 13.2 seconds remaining, the Clippers seemed to go for a steal attempt instead of fouling right away. They missed a golden opportunity to hack Dario Saric, who was 2-for-6 on free throws in clutch minutes during the regular season and has attempted 10 total in the last three seasons.

Saric nearly lost the ball before Cam Payne recovered it, and when the ball bounced out of bounds off the Clippers, nearly half the clock had ticked away, down to 7.8 seconds.

That’s when Paul was fouled. He converted his two free tosses to make it a three-point lead again, and when George was fouled, he missed the first.

That’s when the Clippers decided to miss intentionally. When George did, Saric fouled, and this is not a typo, DeMarcus Cousins.

Yes, Cousins, who entered the game strictly for rebounding and had not played all night, was now going to be at the foul line.

After he sunk the first free throw, Cousins’ attempt to brick the second on purpose saw him huck the ball straight off the backboard. It was above the square and not even close to the rim, granting the Suns the ball back on a violation that told us we were now truly off the rails.

Paul then only downed one of his two free throws, giving the Clippers a slight opening only down three again with 3.9 seconds unfinished. George, once again, buried one and then purposefully bounced the second one off the mark for a rebounding chance but Saric snagged it and got it to Paul for the foul.

Paul left no doubt this time, draining both and mercifully ending the game.

It was a grueling team effort by the Suns to win the game. Mikal Bridges (13 rebounds) and Crowder (seven rebounds) each had three offensive rebounds to go along with Ayton’s nine.

Cam Johnson had one of the best shifts from a Suns bench player this entire year in the first half. He had a handful of outstanding defensive possessions, grabbed one big-time rebound on each end of the floor and drilled a 3. In a game that was that tight, it’s hard not to think of those types of things potentially being the difference, even though it was only five points for Johnson in the box score.

The highest scorer for Phoenix after Booker (25), Ayton (19) and Paul was Bridges with six points. The Suns had 16 assists, their lowest mark of the regular season or playoffs.

And yet, they now lead the series 3-1 and have a chance to make the NBA Finals at home on Monday.

Still not quite sure how they did it? Here’s Williams on when the second half started to spiral.

“We’ve been in these situations but certainly not on this stage where you have a decent lead and all you’re thinking is, ‘Let’s just maintain it or increase it,'” he said. “They came out in the third quarter and scored 30 points and we had a 19.

“At that point, you’re just relying on your defense, relying on execution, but you’re also relying on the mental stamina that we’ve been talking about for two years. We saw it on display tonight.”

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